Art-Mageddon: When Pictures and Words Collide

mervenne_leonard_monstersIf you haven’t seen the new comics collaborative exhibition at artsspace, you still got time! Art-maggdon: When Pictures and Words Collide was created through a joint effort of VCU Communication Arts and VCU English Department Writing Students enrolled in the new class called “Collaborating on Comics” taught by Kelly Alder and Tom De Haven. Students created original comics between 10 and 14 pages in an artistic partnership.

The exhibition is free and open to the public from January 24 – February 23 at artspace in Richmond, Virginia. For more information, click the image!

Borrowing Richard Outcault

Richard F. OutcaultSometime in 1995, when I was trying to complete the long-postponed second novel (working title: Walter’s Ghost; final title: Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies) in what I was hoping eventually would be a trilogy of novels about the imaginary Derby Dugan comic strip and the cartoonists who produced it across the twentieth century, I was invited to contribute a short essay about Richard F. Outcault to Inks: Cartoon and Comic Art Studies, an academic journal published by Ohio State University. The issue that my piece appeared in–Volume 2, No. 3, November 1995–was keyed to the centennial of the first newspaper appearance of Outcault’s seminal comic-strip character, The Yellow Kid. Obviously (and flatteringly), the editors had read my first Derby Dugan novel, Funny Papers and knew that not only was Derby Dugan based on the Yellow Kid, but that Derby’s creator, Georgie Wreckage, was based, in large measure, on Richard Outcault. I wasn’t given a very high word-count, as you’ll see; even so I was tickled to appear (my first and still only time) in a “scholarly” publication, although my contribution has nary a footnote, and no bibliography.

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131016_12PANEL_RadiumGirls-01.jpg.CROP.original-originalLate last June (2013), I got an email one day from the cartoonist James Sturm who runs the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, a place I’ve visited and spoken at on two very happy occasions. “This fall,” James wrote, “CCS and Slate will be debuting a weekly feature called 12 Panel Pitch. If you’ve ever wanted to indulge in the tropes that define Hollywood filmmaking (without having to subject yourself to the humiliations of that process) perhaps you’d consider writing a 12 panel comic? You can approach the work sincerely or as a parody but readers should be able to instinctively recognize the genre of film you’re crafting, and expand on your boiled down script/story with their internalized libraries of clichés and fantasies.” Well, of course I wanted to indulge in the tropes that defined Hollywood filmmaking (without having to subject myself, again, to the humiliations of that process), so I wrote back immediately and said, Yes!

Then, in early July, while I was staying in a small cabin on Norton Island, Maine (the same cabin where I wrote at least half of It’s Superman! in the summers of 2003 and 2004), I worked up a script (the genre: “based on a true story”) called “Radiant.”  (In 2010 I spent many months researching the real-life Radium Girls from Orange, New Jersey in order to write a novel called  “Patsy Touey,” which  I’ve completed but which remains unrevised.)

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Janaski / De Haven: Three Songs

AppleCorpsI majored in Sociology at Rutgers-Newark (1967-71), and don’t think I’d ever considered becoming a fiction writer until I was a senior there and took my first creative-writing class. And I enrolled in it only because I’d taken every Sociology course that was being offered and had to fill out my fall schedule with something. The course was taught by a young, exuberant, nurturing instructor in the English Department named Elizabeth White, who later became a dean at the college; there were probably 20 students in the class. The fiction that I wrote and submitted was strongly influenced (I’ll say!) by Ray Bradbury’s stuff—a series of fantasy stories all with the same magic-boy protagonist named, I’m embarrassed to recall, Tommy-John Whitewater.  I don’t remember a thing about the stories, except their reception, which seemed, to me at least, rhapsodic, and kindled my thinking seriously about fiction writing, prose fiction writing, as a goal, if not a career. Till then, honestly, it had never occurred to me.

Since I was 8 or 9 I’d written stories, but they were stories for the home-made comic strips (“Be-Bop McCarthy,” “Harry Drebbs, Secret Agent,” “The Blue Bug”) that I labored over, ferociously, in the evenings and on weekends. It was a great blow when, at last, I faced the cold hard fact that I wasn’t ever going to be a decent (much less a great, my only goal) narrative cartoonist; I didn’t know it at the time, but my failure to develop drawing chops was pretty basic and pretty fatal: I had no spatial sense, plus my hand-eye coordination pretty much sucked. What made my life’s first great disappointment bearable was—well, actually it was two things.

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UnknownThis short op-ed piece originally appeared in the Fredericksburg, Va. Free Lance-Star on Sunday June 16, 2013, and was picked up over the next few weeks by a number of other papers owned by the McClatchy Company. Every time I think I’m finally done with the Man of Steel, yet another opportunity comes up to write about him. Less than a month before I did this article, I’d written the preface to Superman: the Silver Age Newspaper Dailies Volume 1: 1958-1961, just published (August 2013) by IDW/Library of American Comics. My gratitude to my latest Superman-stuff editors: Karen Owen (Free Lance-Star) and Dean Mullaney (LOAC).

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NemoCoverThis is the first essay–an article, really–that I wrote about my great hero and inspiration, Chester Gould, creator of “Dick Tracy.” It appeared in issue number 17 (cover-dated February 1986) of Nemo: the Classic Comic Library, which was founded and edited by Rick Marschall, published by Fantagraphics, and ran for 31 lively, fascinating, essential issues. To my mind, Nemo is one of the great American magazines, a milestone in the development of comics criticism, and I miss it, although Rick subsequently founded a similar magazine called Hogan’s Alley, which is still issued on a wildly irregular basis.

When I was gathering material earlier this year to start up Cafe Pinfold, “Bud, Which Way to the Noble Hotel?” was one of the things I most wanted to include, but I couldn’t find my copy of the magazine. Recently, though, while ambling through the stacks at Special Collections at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Cabell Library in Richmond, I discovered a complete run of Nemos, and Celina Williams and Cindy Jackson, the superbly professional and generous proprietors of Cabell’s comic-art holdings, made and sent me a PDF of my article. I’m delighted to post it here now, alongside of (or actually above) the much-later-written “Heart of Gould.”   Continue reading


imagesFor ten years (1990-2000), I regularly reviewed books for Entertainment Weekly, a gig I very much appreciated and dearly loved, except on those not-so-rare occasions when, to paraphase Raymond Chandler, my brain turned to cement and it took me 30 hours (and I’m not kidding you) to write a measly 300 words.  I often reviewed novels by “bestselling authors” such as John Grisham, Dean Koontz, Patricia Cornwell, Richard North Patterson, and, of course, Stephen King, whose fiction I’ve always liked and admired, even when it’s been overlong and a little baggy–Insomnia, for instance, or Bag of Bones. I mention King and my book-reviewing days here because it’s an episode that springs from one and involves the other (or vice versa) that’s the direct impetus for my decision to start writing serialized fiction expressly for this blog.

In late March 1996, King nervily began publishing a novel called The Green Mile in low-priced paperback installments issued monthly. At EW I got the assignment to review each installment as it came out, and despite the fact that I try my best to avoid any books or films about life in prison (well, some people can’t stand heights, I can’t stand prison stories, they make me very anxious)–despite that, I was utterly swept away by the story, set during the Great Depression on death row in a Georgia Penetentiary. And I loved that I had to wait a month between installments.

Fan4As a high school kid in the mid-60s I’d been hooked on Marvel Comics, especially on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four, whose stories continued over several issues and several months, and at the same time I’d also become infatuated by old-time (1930s and 40s,very early 50s) movie serials, things like The Lost Jungle and Darkest Africa, starring Clyde Beatty, as well as Zorro’s Fighting Legion and Flash Gordon and King of the Rocket Men, which were often broadcast in the late afternoon on local New York City TV stations. Also while I was in high school, I read a lot of Dickens, and was amazed and charmed to learn that he used to publish his long, long novels in monthly magazine installments. This is all just to say I was a fan of serial fiction even before Stephen King set himself the task of trying it himself.

Soon after I’d reviewed the second installment of The Green Mile, in late April 1996, I received a letter from King that he’d sent me at Entertainment Weekly and which was forwarded to my home in Virginia. It was handwritten on three or four sheets of yellow foolscap, and he’d written it just to say thank you for the kind notices I’d been giving to his serial novel, and then–in a very chatty, friendly manner–he went on to tell me that he and his brother, as kids, had been avid fans of Western serials, and serial fiction, and that he’d always had it in his head that he’d like to go out on the tightrope himself one day and see what might happen if he started publishing a story he hadn’t yet finished writing and which he had no idea where it was headed or what the ending would be. When I read that, I was poleaxed (as they used to say in Western serials). He didn’t know where it was going?  He didn’t know what the ending would be?  Most novelists don’t know that stuff when they’re working, but hardly any of us publish the stuff in progress! That Stephen King, man, he’s a gutsy guy.*

Ever since receiving that letter–17 years ago–I’d remember from time to time what he’d done, and how he’d done it, and I’d think, I’d like to try that myself, too. One day. Some day.

So that’s what SERIALS is all about.  I’ll be writing, and posting, probably every three weeks or so, a new “episode” of a story written to be read in installments. I have a notebook with half a dozen story ideas jotted down. The first serial, called ”King Touey” is set in Bayonne, New Jersey (my hometown) in 1915 during the famous Standard Oil Strike. King Touey is a character in a long novel I’ve been writing for a couple of years now called ”Patsy Touey” (King is Patsy’s older brother), but this is completely new work, a separate story, and is not part of that novel.  (If you subscribe to the blog, you’ll be notified by email whenever a new episode is posted.)


* He’s also a very nice guy, too.  When I answered his letter and told him how many “dad points” I’d earned with my two teenaged daughters for having received a handwritten letter from Stephen King, he responded by sending a padded mailer stuffed full of his novels, all inscribed to them.  And in case you’re wondering, after we made contact, I stopped reviewing further installments of The Green Mile. Which I still think is one of his masterpieces.